A New Class Consciousness

A New Class Consciousness

For all the friendly feelings toward organized labor in the United States today, a new workers’ movement remains incipient.

A UPS worker at a teamsters rally on July 19, 2023, in Los Angeles (Frederic J. Brown/ AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden era has, in some respects, been a boon for unions. They have a friendly voice in the White House. A flurry of rulemaking at the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Environmental Protection Agency promises to raise prevailing-wage determinations for labor on public works, to restrict employer speech that threatens or intimidates workers, to seek court orders against employers for violating the law, and to impose employer neutrality on beneficiaries of certain federal grants and tax credits. Liberals preach the case for rebuilding the labor movement, which is the closest thing to a popular political machine they have ever enjoyed. Meanwhile, a new group of conservatives—led by politicians such as Marco Rubio and intellectuals such as Oren Cass—publicly argues, however improbably, for collective bargaining.

The economic conditions have been ripe as well. A business-cycle upswing in the late Obama years, delayed politically during the Great Recession, saw a decade of minimum-wage increases at the state and local levels. (Only five counties or cities had their own minimum-wage ordinances in 2012; fifty-five do today.) Employment in state and local governments—which is near its peak pre-pandemic levels—is strong. The construction boom, although slowing in the housing sector, has accelerated in manufacturing, driven by a reorganization of supply chains for producers of electric vehicles and renewable energy. Federal spending on infrastructure is scheduled to double in 2024 and again in 2026, while private investment to install energy generation and distribution systems is rising and expected to continue; expanded prevailing-wage and apprenticeship requirements on these projects will grow the construction trades. Product orders, capacity investment, construction, and government payrolls all sustain employment, a prerequisite to union organizing.

But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that did more than anything to denaturalize the regime of individual bargaining—competitive and private wage negotiations and company-sponsored career-path planning—with which employers and politicians have frozen the aspirations and energies of the nation’s workers. Eighteen months of enhanced unemployment benefits (beginning under the Trump-signed CARES Act) for more than 53 million workers provided temporary relief from the daily grind. And the customarily hidden powers over who organizes work were exposed, challenging our tolerance for managers’ unilateral control over the terms and conditions of employment. Wage earners discovered a disorganized power during the pandemic, and in April 2021 the White House responded by establishing the Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, chaired by Labor Secretary Martin Walsh and Vice President Kamala Harris. In February 2022, the task force recommended a library of administrative rule changes “to empower workers and to remove longstanding barriers to organizing.”

Is all this part of a process of workers learning to think and act as a class? How long can the new mood last?

Employers’ antennae are buzzing. “Today’s workforce is looking for a cause, and unions are stepping in to try to fill the void,” the employer-side labor law firm Littler Mendelson warned last November. A panel at the firm’s Tri-State Regional Employer Conference, held at the Times Square Marriott in June, prepared executives and HR professionals for “The Resurgence of the Labor Movement and What It Means to Your Business.” C-suites, with their defensive instincts, recognize what can only be described as a new consciousness about class in American life.

Yet if you ask anyone in organized labor today whether they believe the United States is moving beyond neoliberalism, they will accuse you of idealism. The newfound popularity for collective bargaining has been mostly cultural and rhetorical, and unions have until recently played a negligible role in the political and economic transformations of the pandemic era. For all the signs of class consciousness, a new workers’ movement remains incipient. Roughly a third of union-membership growth in 2022 (70,000 members out of 200,000) came as a result of new organizing. Most of the gains were from new hires in shops that were already unionized. But that part of the labor market grew more slowly than the rest: the union share of national employment continued to fall, from 10.3 percent in 2021 to 10.1 percent in 2022. New organizing has been magnified by the contemporary culture, but by most metrics—number of eligible voters, number of elections, number of votes and election wins, number of workers taking strike action—union activity during the past couple years was around the levels of 2009 and 2010, and lower than it was in the last three decades of the twentieth century.

Employer anxieties about a “resurgence of the labor movement” thus resemble the paranoia of the antebellum plantation owner, who warned of conspiracies, outlawed literacy, and sounded alarms despite an absence of sustained revolt. For all of corporate America’s apparent preparations for insurgency in, and invasion of, its labor markets, it has yet to be met with the kinds of collective action that would confirm its fears or change the political balance in Congress in favor of reforming labor law. Leaving neoliberalism behind would entail just this sort of organization among the millions of unorganized. Until labor unions and their disruptive power grow, any talk of a post-neoliberal order will remain theoretical. 

Could two national contract fights help change this picture? The largest union campaigns currently underway, as measured by the numbers of represented workers, involve the bargaining of national contracts for existing unions: one, which expires on September 14, for 150,000 United Auto Workers at the Detroit automakers, and another for 340,000 Teamsters at the United Parcel Service, who spent the summer preparing to walk on August 1. Both contract campaigns are institutionalized expressions of a new collective desire: the struggles—both of which are led by new nationally elected leaders who use militant, at times vengeful, outsider rhetoric—aim to reverse wage concessions, which were granted in response to the global restructuring of product markets (in the case of UAW) or to the legal reclassification of work relationships (the Teamsters). As contract campaigns, they are necessarily focused on existing members. The excitement they have generated outside the unions points to the still-vicarious nature of the new labor culture.

If workers are to capture and organize the hype into an empowered and growing labor movement, they will do so only by staking claims to the vast unorganized territory outside the UAW and Teamster contract campaigns. 

The U.S. workforce consists of roughly 166 million people across some 131 million households. Just 14 million workers, about one in twelve, were union members in 2022; about half work in the public sector, including some 2.6 million public-school teachers and 2.3 million state employees. The other 7 million work in industries with owners and managers who have long since learned to recruit, train, and operate with non-unionized labor. These include 1.2 million healthcare workers (out of 18.7 million total); 1.1 million manufacturing workers (out of 14.6 million); a million construction workers (out of 8.6 million); 729,000 transportation workers for air, rail, water, truck, and bus companies (out of 3.2 million); 650,000 retail workers (out of 15 million); 600,000 private educators (out of 5 million); 190,000 utility workers (out of 968,000); 373,000 clerical workers (out of 16.6 million); 117,000 food-service workers (out of 8.6 million); and 81,000 hotel workers (out of 1.1 million). The organized minorities mainly exist in regional strongholds: the mid-Atlantic corridor, New England, the northern auto towns, the Pacific coast, Chicago and Milwaukee, and (thanks to UNITE HERE) the Western cities of Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Many unions are economically embattled by non-union competition in their product and service markets. For every UPS or General Motors party to a master contract, there is a FedEx or a Nissan that is not; for every union shop, there’s another dozen non-union competitors. Labor’s economic environment over the past four decades has been defined by a pattern of consolidating ownership among the high-labor-cost, union-contracted firms, which drive hard bargains against their organized workforce to protect market share in an ecosystem of non-union competitors; employer bankruptcies are the trump card. This is the pattern of industrial organization under neoliberalism, which, as the labor economics professor David Weil has shown, is characterized by the fissuring of employer responsibilities toward not only collective bargaining but employment itself, to the point that companies reclassify labor as independent contracting. 

The transformation of auto manufacturing is a case in point. Unlike in the steel, coal, textile, and apparel industries—other early-twentieth-century labor battlegrounds—employment in the auto and auto-parts sectors did not shrink in the final third of the twentieth century. The notion that Reagan-era deindustrialization eliminated auto employment is a myth. It last peaked in the year 2000, at around 1.3 million workers.

Rather than displacement by competition from assembly plants abroad, industry employment trends have been driven primarily by import competition in the parts industry and the growth of non-union assembly by multinational owners in the United States. By the late 1990s, a fifth of the industry’s workers were in the South, while Japanese and German companies opened non-union factories on union turf in Pennsylvania (Volkswagen), Ohio (Honda), California (Toyota), Michigan (Mazda), Illinois (Mitsubishi), Indiana (Subaru and Toyota), and Kentucky (Toyota and Volvo). Whether foreign-owned or Southern-located, a growing share of the industry’s new factories were non-union. Companies targeted union markets for downsizing, beginning with Delphi and Visteon, the in-house parts departments that Ford and GM sold off in response to NAFTA. Until the dot-com crash, both Delphi and Visteon continued to employ more than 60,000 U.S. workers. It was the recession that followed the bust, coupled with new supply chains created under NAFTA, that shrank the industry’s domestic labor demand: employment at the UAW “Big Five”—GM, Chrysler, Ford, Delphi, and Visteon—had fallen by 54,000 by early 2003. Altogether the industry shed 300,000 jobs in the early 2000s, with total employment dipping below 1 million on the eve of the global financial crisis. Employers thus had increased leverage in contract bargaining.

Unions adapted by agreeing to the “tiering” of workers. In 2006, Caterpillar adopted two-tier contracts, and in 2007 the “Big Three” automakers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) did the same. On the eve of the subprime-mortgage collapse, total UAW membership had fallen to 460,000, with less than 200,000 of those workers employed at the Big Three. The bankruptcies of Visteon, GM, and Chrysler during the financial crisis brought this number below 150,000, and under the terms of the bailout imposed by the Obama administration, the UAW agreed to surrender the right to strike until 2015. 

Foreign investment, domestic restructuring, and competition from non-union manufacturers and suppliers have given the industry its modern form. The brand names continue to employ some 300,000 workers in the United States, and purchase parts from some 4,000 companies employing an additional 700,000 workers. Out of that million, the UAW today represents just 150,000. 

Against these headwinds, labor’s epochal challenge has been to establish beachheads among the unorganized competition, while at the same time pursuing collective bargaining that protects the profitability and employment stability of unionized workplaces.

Autoworkers at non-union plants have routinely lost elections for UAW representation: in 1989 and 2001, at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee; in 2017, at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi; and in 2014 and 2019, at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. These plants, at the time of their elections, employed a total of about 10,000 workers; in the final count, across the three plants, there were just 3,569 votes for UAW representation, and 6,180 against. During the campaigns, the employers had threatened that unionization would lead to the plants reducing their production, or even closing up altogether. Joining a union was high risk, for uncertain rewards.

Labor has faced similar problems in the trucking industry, in which company ownership often quickly changes to offload contractual obligations to bankruptcy courts. The number of non-union trucking businesses doubled during the 1970s. Congress opened new markets to their competition with the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which liberalized federal rate regulation. The deep and prolonged recession induced by the Volcker Shock that same year cleared the field of union firms: signatories to the Teamsters’ National Master Freight Agreement fell from 500 in 1979 to fewer than forty in 1985. The number of long-haul truckers covered by Teamster standards fell from 300,000 in 1979 to 136,000 in 1998. At the same time, the total number of truckers has gone up. From around a million drivers in the early 1990s, employment has grown to 1.4 million today. An additional 350,000 to 400,000 drivers work as independent contractors, according to the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. Today just two large conglomerates are party to the Teamsters’ non-UPS master-freight agreements, which cover some 33,000 workers—about a quarter of all union truckers—out of 1.7 million total truck-transportation workers.

Unlike freight trucking, in which thousands of firms compete for small slivers of the national market, parcel delivery comprises just four companies competing in many local markets. The largest of these by revenue, UPS, remains a union stronghold, employing 340,000 Teamster members across its facilities. By volume, UPS commands about a quarter of the private parcel-service market in the United States, just above the non-unionized FedEx—a company that saw significant growth and a doubling of earnings during the last UPS national strike, in 1997. FedEx exhibits the aggressive anti-union animus typical of corporate America. The Teamsters won an NLRB election in a twenty-person FedEx shop in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2007, but the company fought a successful ten-year battle to vacate the results. Some 400 workers across four FedEx Freight facilities have voted for union representation since 2014, but at three of those facilities the company successfully decertified the unions after refusing to bargain with them. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, most unions continued to emphasize protection rather than gamble on growth. In 2020, the UAW devoted just 6 percent of its budget to organizing; the United Steelworkers allocated only 3 percent. The United Food and Commercial Workers reduced its organizing spending from 9 percent of its budget in 2013 to less than 4 percent in 2021. James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1998 to 2022, sought to protect existing markets by conceding to companies’ demands to limit labor costs, through wage and benefit cuts in existing contracts, and phasing in lower standards for newer workers. In 2018, Hoffa’s Teamsters introduced a second tier of workers into UPS’s master agreement when it approved a contract voted down by UPS’s membership. At its worst, this loss of higher purpose bred corruption. In 2019, the Department of Justice indicted leaders of UAW’s Chrysler and GM divisions, along with two executive board members, for embezzling funds from joint labor-management training centers and accepting bribes.

It has been left to newer leaders to take the initiative. Local affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association organized the statewide teacher mobilizations of 2018. The Amazon Labor Union—which, despite its inability to enforce its right to collective bargaining, represents the largest new certified bargaining unit since the NLRB began publishing digital records—is a start-up created by coworkers in New York City. 

Two unions have publicly adopted the new attitude: the Teamsters and the UAW. In November 2021, the Teamsters, the country’s largest private-sector union, elected Sean O’Brien, of Boston Local 25, as president. He defeated the Hoffa-endorsed Steve Vairma by a margin of two to one, with over 173,000 members voting. O’Brien campaigned against the Teamsters’ declining market share, as well as Hoffa’s pattern of wage and pension give-backs and his unwillingness to call a strike at UPS in 2018. His coalition included the forty-seven-year-old left-wing caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). The caucus collects its own dues and employs its own staff, and three of its leaders are now on the Teamsters’ twenty-seven-member executive board. There they are joined by non-TDU militants such as Lindsay Dougherty, the leader of Hollywood’s Local 399, which has been instrumental in shutting down production during the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike.

This March, the UAW completed its own leadership referendum. In 2019, the union’s fourteen-member executive board appointed a new president in response to the federal bribery investigation. The following year, members gathered enough signatures for a referendum to change the way leaders are elected. Historically, the UAW has selected its executive board members through 900 delegates who attend the union’s constitutional convention. Last July, for the first time in its history, the union instead sent ballots to every one of its members in an election supervised by a court-appointed monitor. A reform slate led by Shawn Fain—a former electrician at Local 1166 in Kokomo, Indiana, who worked for ten years at the Chrysler training facility—campaigned for new leadership. The slate included several other staff from the Chrysler division. Proximity to malfeasance appears to have stimulated enough indignation to challenge the remaining leadership.

The ballot count resulted in a runoff election for three offices within the executive board, including the presidency. As O’Brien’s alliance did with TDU, the Fain slate had campaigned with a left-wing caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy, which organized around the journal Labor Notes and its readership in higher-education locals. The Chrysler locals, the higher-education and white-collar locals, and the economically embattled Midwestern locals delivered majorities for Fain’s slate. But the election wasn’t a sweep. UAW’s Region 8, in the South—home to Curry, the incumbent president—and the militant Local 600, in Detroit—a stronghold of Chuck Browning, the union’s vice president—delivered large majorities for the existing leaders. In the 142,000-vote runoff, completed in March, Browning won a two-to-one majority and kept his office; Curry lost by a margin of less than 500 votes.

The new leaderships of these two major unions—which together command $525 million in annual revenue and more than $1 billion in strike funds—both represent, albeit in different ways, a novel and uncertain partnership between radicals and business-minded career officers. Fain has hired two left-wing journalists to lead his new team. Chris Brooks, a former staff writer for Labor Notes and an organizer with the NewsGuild, is his chief of staff, and the freelance journalist Jonah Furman is his communications director. Fain and O’Brien built their campaigns on eliminating two-tier contracts and raising newer workers’ wages to older standards. Senator Bernie Sanders has appeared with both leaders. 

Because the Teamsters’ contract with UPS was set to expire on August 1, the union had given the company a deadline of July 1 to finalize the agreement, so that the membership could have four weeks to ratify the new contract and avoid a strike. The union later extended this deadline to July 5, and in a thirteenth-hour concession the company agreed to eliminate the lower wage tier, yet the parties failed to reach a wage settlement. As a result, the union mobilized practice pickets and announced a series of rallies in major cities, all in preparation for midnight on August 1. The need for members to ratify any agreement made a strike look inevitable throughout July—until seven days before the contract expired, when O’Brien’s team announced a tentative agreement. The bargaining team’s performance has been a master class, and TDU has joined the union to support the agreement. The UAW, for its part, took defensive job actions in 2007 and 2019; the overtly offensive rhetoric in the current round appears to all but promise work stoppages. “Whether or not there is a strike [is] up to Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis,” Fain said in mid-July, days before bargaining began. (Stellantis is the multinational corporation to which Chrysler now belongs.) “They know what our priorities are.”

Could the Teamster and UAW contract campaigns be a bellwether in this new environment, in which excitement for organized labor is appearing to grow? Securing a large wage increase, some argue, would demonstrate the utility of collective bargaining and increase the appeal of unions to the unorganized. But the defining characteristic of our era has been organized labor’s continued decline, which current business trends and union campaigns indicate will only continue. 

It is important for those looking for a revival of organized labor to understand how the task of collective bargaining necessarily limits the ambitious aspirations that have colored the internal revolutions at the Teamsters and UAW. So far, new organizing efforts have come second to the contract campaigns targeting the companies that employ more than a third of each union’s membership. This means that the power of even militant leaders rests on the claims they make to existing membership—rather than to those currently unorganized, whose future participation remains an uncertainty.

“We have to organize Amazon,” O’Brien said shortly after his inauguration. The Teamsters even launched an Amazon Division, led by Randy Korgan of Local 1932, in Southern California’s Inland Empire region. Yet for all of O’Brien’s forceful, and welcome, challenges to Jeff Bezos, Amazon has won only 12 percent of the parcel-delivery market. FedEx, by contrast, has grown nearly to the size of UPS. The UAW faces similar problems. The portions of the auto industry that have grown the most long ago devised ways to operate without collective bargaining.

Owing to the difficulty of winning over large shops under the existing patterns of intimidation and coercion, labor leaders’ collective imaginations during the Biden era have been monopolized by the idea of growth through neutrality agreements, in which employers refrain from running anti-union campaigns among their workers. This perspective took hold of organized labor’s Washington lobbyists and Democratic Party allies, who sought neutrality language for the recipients of federal funding and tax credits—language that Congress failed to include in either the Inflation Reduction Act or the CHIPS and Science Act. Nevertheless, Fain has sensibly advocated that workers in the emerging electric-vehicle industry be included in UAW’s current round of contract bargaining. This strategic move extends no further than the existing signatories—it does not include the foreign-owned or new EV makers—and hinges on a partnership with Washington. It is not a claim to represent the 850,000 non-unionized autoworkers.

Despite all this, there remains an unquestionable new force undergirding transactions in the labor market: a new class consciousness in America. It has emerged irrespective of the continued decline of unions’ market share, the repeated failures of labor’s key legislative priorities, and the growing feeling that it is only workers who can achieve for themselves the security and dignity that their employers and the larger political system fecklessly promise. It is reflected in pop culture, where a cynicism long marginalized to the edges of popular consciousness has become commonplace: a belief that the United States is a corrupt society, ruled by an entitled, incompetent, and even sociopathic elite. It reverberates through the stories that journalists tell about the elections of 2016 and 2020, and those they are beginning to tell about 2024. The most profound evidence is in liberal rhetoric itself, in which the goals of strong employment growth and of strengthening labor’s bargaining power have become standard economic talking points. Pundits no longer blanch at the idea of the working class as a category of analysis, or scoff at the idea that it might exercise collective agency.

Any discussion of labor’s plight today must begin with a hardheaded realism about the necessity of self-help. For all the signs of opportunity recognized by labor leaders, there is not yet a consensus on how to build the organization necessary for greater power. Unions’ staff may feel as if the gargantuan task of organizing the unorganized is something beyond their control. It will require self-organization by workers, who undertake the exhaustive task of organizing strikes for themselves, likely in defense of their own leaders and in defiance of court orders; only then can any union integrate them into a larger structure. Yet it is also true that the goal is impossible without unions using their existing resources to sustain campaigns. The return of the union idea is unlikely to go any farther than the distance unions reach to meet it.

The new class consciousness undoubtedly strengthens the positions of the Teamsters and the UAW at the bargaining table. But it cannot alter the balance of forces governing the country unless it is channeled into campaigns of a scale capable of confronting the existing centers of economic and political authority. The course of the Biden administration has illustrated this fact. According to the new liberal rhetoric, fiscal expansion in 2020 and 2021 was a resounding success: the annual rate of growth of average hourly wages, which was 2.7 percent in the eight years before the pandemic, has more than doubled in the past three years, to 6.6 percent, and above 7 percent for those who earn less than the median. But despite the change of heart among our business writers and opinion columnists, the sharp debate over a sixteen-month inflation that began in early 2021 and peaked last summer signaled that some thought enough power had been conceded to workers. Congress limited spending to tax collections, and opposed raising taxes on either corporate treasuries or the higher brackets. National health insurance or a federal housing program—much less any kind of freeze on rents or prices for essential goods—remain the stuff of intellectual polemics rather than legislative debate.

The insurgent leaders of two of the largest international unions are working under conditions of unchallenged corporate domination. When unions have grown, non-union markets have outpaced them. When wages have risen, so too have prices. No group of workers or labor leaders will be able to challenge this status quo absent new organization that reaches out far beyond existing strongholds. Who can credibly claim today a program to bring organization to the millions of unorganized workers in this country? That is still beyond our imagination. And it is this foreclosure, more than anything else, that signals we are not yet through the depths of our current struggles.

Andrew Elrod is a writer and historian who lives in Los Angeles.